From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
A Few Words in Defense of American Institutions (Which Is to Say, Us)
by Martin Seay
I commit to vote in 2018 because the Trump presidency constitutes an unprecedented challenge to American institutions.
We hear this phrase often, or some variation of it: assault on, disruption of, challenge to American institutions. It’s worth being specific about what this means. American institutions include all the branches and functions of government—federal, state, and local—but also the market economy, the free and independent press, and a host of civil, religious, scientific, medical, educational, and cultural organizations, as well as an array of venues and platforms for sports, arts, and entertainment, all of which interact to produce the quotidian texture of life in the United States.
To a greater or lesser extent, every last one of these has been unsettled by the election of Donald J. Trump.
We should also be clear that not every institution merits safeguarding, and not every institutional disruption ought to be condemned. Prior to the Civil War, for instance, white Southerners referred to slavery euphemistically but not inaccurately as a “peculiar institution,” and in the years since emancipation, an entrenched system of laws and practices has maintained racial inequality by limiting African Americans’ access to employment, credit, education, and justice. Though we portray ourselves as a nation of pioneers and immigrants, throughout much of our history our actual policy toward new arrivals has been bigoted and exclusionary, while our treatment of the continent’s earliest inhabitants has ranged from resentful to genocidal. Formally denied suffrage until 1920, women remain subject to deep-rooted assumptions and expectations that prevent their equal participation in every aspect of the American experience. Powerful and persistent institutional forces perpetuate each of these instances of unfairness, and should rightly be opposed.
What’s different about Trump’s challenge to American institutions—what earns it the status of existential threat and national emergency—is that the institutions it targets are the fundamental principles set forth in our founding documents: the rule of law that safeguards our individual freedoms, and the democratic system through which we assert our pluralistic interests. However imperfect they may be in their application and results, these remain our best means of reconciling our differences and advancing our common welfare.
Whether these fundamental institutions will successfully defend themselves and hold the current administration to account for its abuses remains to be seen. The most insidious damage inflicted by these assaults will probably also be the most enduring. Human behavior is shaped less by values than by norms; the unavoidable lag between capricious violations of the basic tenets of responsible governance and the legal and political redress of those violations engenders a creeping expectation that this conduct is tolerable. Tolerated long enough, it begins to seem normal.
What many have long cautioned is now painfully clear: many Americans simply do not value the fundamental institutions that Trump and his allies have targeted. Instead, they evince a blithe willingness—even a perfervid eagerness—to see these institutions warped and adulterated in the interest of maintaining a familiar social hierarchy, one that’s solidly patriarchal and white-supremacist. To these Americans, the preservation of this social order is worth surrendering their own freedom from corporate predation, their access to affordable healthcare, and their expectation that public officials serve without corruption. These voters have been a force in our politics throughout the history of the republic, one that responded to the eight years of the Obama presidency with particularly convulsive force, and that is now conspicuously untroubled by their chosen president’s chumminess with the ascendant authoritarians of other nations. These people aren’t going anywhere, and they aren’t going to change their minds.
Most Americans, however, remain profoundly invested in the endurance of our fundamental institutions, and must now commit to energetically asserting that investment on Election Day. Further, we must commit to testifying, however we are able, to the fact that the behavior of this president and his administration is neither normal nor acceptable, and cannot begin to be perceived as such. Finally, we must work to ensure that these fundamental institutions exercise their legitimate authority to undo the reactionary forces that contradict them, to take the present disaster as an occasion to reconcile our practices with our values. In order to survive, freedom and fairness must expand.
American political consciousness is undergirded by a few instances of rhetoric that almost every schoolchild can call to mind. Abraham Lincoln’s assertion in his Gettysburg address of human equality as a national defining proposition, Emma Lazarus’s portrayal of America as a welcoming golden door, Franklin Roosevelt’s inclusion of want and fear in his list of conditions from which all people ought to be free, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s characterization of our founding documents as a promissory note—these engage the moral imagination of our citizens because they implicitly indicate that the United States is not making good on its promises, while assuring us that it can and must do so. “America never was America to me,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1935, “And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”
Whatever their ultimate manifestation, all institutions arise as expressions of aggregate human will. At their worst, they become mechanisms for consolidating power and avoiding responsibility; at their best, they vastly multiply our capacity to do good. As we prepare to rescue our nation from its present peril, we do well to remember that all American institutions, whether salutary or corrupt, are the expression of a single underlying force: the huge, diverse, harried, conflicted population of individual persons that constitutes the United States, and which circumstances now call to action.
Take action today: Commit to vote.
Martin Seay is the author of the novel The Mirror Thief. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the author Kathleen Rooney.